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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 38 min 19 sec ago

Can a digital lending library solve classic gaming’s piracy problem?

52 min 52 sec ago


In the last few weeks, a renewed bout of legal action from Nintendo has led to the shutdown of a handful of ROM sites, which previously let users download digital, emulation-ready copies of classic games. This has, in turn, led to a lot of good discussion about the positive and negative effects this kind of ROM collection and distribution has brought to the gaming community.

From a legal standpoint, it's hard to defend sites that revolve around unlimited downloads of copyrighted games. As attorney Michael Lee put it in a recent blog post, "this is classic infringement; there is no defense to this, at all." But as Video Game History Foundation founder Frank Cifaldi tweeted, "there is no alternative BUT piracy for, like, 99 percent of video game history" due to "the completely abysmal job the video game industry has done keeping its games available."

But what if there might be a middle ground that could thread the needle between the legality of original cartridges and the convenience of emulated ROMs? What if an online lending library, temporarily loaning out copies of ROMs tied to individual original cartridges, could satisfy the letter of the law and the interests of game preservation at the same time?

Read 47 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Trump’s new “Clean Power Plan” might be a boon to coal-fired power plants

1 hour 12 min ago

Enlarge / Smokestacks at Pacificorp’s 1,000MW coal-fired power plant on October 9, 2017 outside Huntington, Utah. (credit: George Frey/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Trump administration proposed a replacement rule for former president Obama's Clean Power Plan, and its details favor coal power plant owners.

On Monday night, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed a proposed rule, called the "Affordable Clean Energy Rule," which would direct states to inventory their power plants and come up with a plan to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of individual plants. By contrast, the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan established targets for emissions across each state's energy sector, a move that would have incentivized the industry to leave behind the highest-carbon-emitting power sources, like coal.

The Trump administration has argued that the EPA can't use the Clean Air Act to set emissions levels for the energy industry in general but instead could regulate emissions at each individual source of emissions. The argument has not yet been tested in court, although opposition to the rule proposed today may give the administration a chance to try it out.

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Microsoft shuts down phishing sites, accuses Russia of new election meddling

1 hour 40 min ago

Enlarge / Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Moscow Urban Forum 2018 on July 18, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (credit: Getty Images | Mikhail Svetlov )

Russia has denied any knowledge of a spear phishing attempt that allegedly mimicked the domains of the US Senate and two US-based think tanks.

Russia's denial came after Microsoft said it detected and shut down the campaign.

"Last week, Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) successfully executed a court order to disrupt and transfer control of six Internet domains created by a group widely associated with the Russian government and known as Strontium, or alternatively Fancy Bear or APT28," Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith wrote in Microsoft's announcement Monday. "We have now used this approach 12 times in two years to shut down 84 fake websites associated with this group."

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Unboxing Sony’s “500 Million Limited Edition PS4 Pro”

1 hour 58 min ago

When Sony offered us access to one of its "500 Million Limited Edition PS4 Pro" consoles—made to commemorate 500 million PlayStation systems sold since 1995—we initially didn't see much point. Sure, the translucent navy blue casing seemed pretty cool to look at, and the limited run of 50,000 units give the unit a collectible cachet. Inside, though, the "new" system is exactly like the PS4 Pro we already reviewed back in 2016, but now with a 2TB hard drive.

Then we remembered that we're always looking for giveaways for our next Charity Drive sweepstakes and figured that a relatively rare PS4 console would make a great prize for a deserving reader. So before we pack this exclusive PS4 Pro in the prize closet until the holiday season, we popped open the box to take a few quick pictures of what's inside. Enjoy gawking at the gallery above and dreaming of winning this very unit in a few months!

Read on Ars Technica | Comments

Archaeologists explore East Africa’s ancient monumental cemeteries

2 hours 23 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Hildebrand et al. 2018)

Large monumental cemeteries line the shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana: hundreds of tightly packed graves beneath round stone platforms ringed with boulders and basalt columns, each flanked by its own chain of smaller stone circles and cairns. To learn more about the people who built it, archaeologists recently excavated parts of the largest and oldest of these monuments and surveyed the site with ground-penetrating radar. The results suggest that Kenya’s ancient herders constructed them as a communal effort to cope with an unstable environment and a shifting cultural frontier.

A crowded ancient cemetery

Around 5,000 years ago (according to radiocarbon dating of burials), people started clearing away deep drifts of beach sand on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Turkana, digging down to the sandstone bedrock and shoring up the sides with large, flat slabs of sandstone. Then they started digging into the soft sandstone floor of the 30-meter-wide pit, carving out shallow, closely spaced graves.

Archaeologist Elisabeth Hildebrand of Stony Brook University and the Turkana Basin Institute and her colleagues excavated a 2m by 2m test area in the center of the pit and another at the edge. Based on the number of people buried in just those two small spaces, they estimate that the crowded cemetery at the heart of the Lothagam North Pillar Site holds at least 580 graves.

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Massachusetts gives workers new protections against noncompete clauses

3 hours 2 min ago

Enlarge / Jimmy Johns required employees to sign noncompete agreements, a practice it dropped in 2016 after a lawsuit. (credit: J. Hendron)

Tucked into an economic development bill signed by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this month was a little-noticed provision that could have a big economic impact for Massachusetts workers. The language, introduced by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, aims to rein in the abuse of employee noncompetition agreements in the state.

In a Thursday phone interview, Ehrlich told Ars that her work was motivated by hearing from hundreds of Massachusetts workers who had suffered from the abuse of noncompete laws. In one infamous case, a summer camp got a high school student to sign a noncompete agreement that effectively barred her from working at another summer camp the following year.

"We heard from people working at pizza parlors, yogurt shops, hairdressers, and people making sandwiches," Ehrlich said. "Those stories were incredibly compelling and really drove the narrative for change."

Read 33 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Google Fit gets all-white redesign, new activity rings [Update]

4 hours 22 min ago

Enlarge / The new Google Fit. (credit: Google)

Google is revamping its fitness tracking app, Google Fit. It's getting an all-white redesign in line with Google's new Material Design guidelines and new metrics for fitness tracking based on guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Google Fit's new logo.

The main new display is a set of circles that fill in as you reach your goal. Before, Google Fit would only track a single "active" goal, which broke down to doing any kind of movement for a certain number of minutes a day. The new design features two circles that track "Move Minutes​" and "Heart Points." Move Minutes are just the old step counter over time, but now separated Heart Points are earned for more vigorous workouts, as detected by accelerometers, speed, manual logging, and the heart-rate monitor of a Wear OS smart watch. Third-party app integrations will be able to log Heart Points, too. The ring system looks a lot like Apple's activity tracking, but in addition to tracking normal movement and more vigorous workouts, Apple has a third ring that tracks standing.

Any minute of moderate activity above normal walking speed will earn a Heart Point, and Google says you'll get double points for "more intense activities like running or kickboxing." Before, Google Fit let you set any goal threshold for your activity, but with the redesign it is now more guided and is based on the US government's physical activity guidelines. The basic guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate activity a week (more than just walking), and the new Google Fit will explain these guidelines and push users to meet them.

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The RAM 1500 Laramie Crew Cab fuses “luxury” and “pickup truck”

5 hours 52 min ago

Enlarge / The '19 RAM 1500 Laramie edition doesn't handle like a boat, but it sure can pull one—in style. (credit: Sean Gallagher)

I have an inordinate fondness for trucks. I learned to drive in a 1978 Chevy Suburban and drove an '88 Ford Ranger for years. However, in recent years, my selection of vehicles has been restrained by my wife's insistence on this thing called "practicality"—we are city dwellers, and despite the sometimes post-apocalyptic terrain of Baltimore streets, Paula has resisted the wisdom of driving something huge with a cargo capacity suitable for evacuating survivors.

I wanted a pickup, and she wanted a Subaru. So we compromised. We got a Subaru.

But when the 2019 RAM 1500 Laramie Crew Cab 4×4 arrived for my test drive—$60,190, as tested—I gained an ally in my pickup-truck cause. "This is my dream car... I mean, truck," my 17-year-old daughter said as she climbed up into the expansive cab and sat in one of the vented, leather-trimmed front seats.

Read 14 remaining paragraphs | Comments

3D-printed gun activists set to face numerous US states in court

7 hours 52 min ago

Enlarge / Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed company, holds a 3D printed gun, called the "Liberator", in his factory in Austin, Texas, on August 1, 2018. (credit: KELLY WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorneys from 19 states and the District of Columbia will ask a judge to continue an order forbidding the release of 3D-printed gun files on Tuesday morning at 9:00am Pacific Time in federal court in Seattle.

Strangely, the lawsuit, State of Washington et al. v. United States Department of State et al, seems to ignore the fact that the files are already available on numerous sites, including Github, The Pirate Bay, and more. These files have circulated online since their original publication back in 2013. (Recently, new mirrors of the files have begun to pop up: here's one, and here's another.)

Lawyers representing both the Department of State and Defense Distributed argue that their already-approved legal settlement should go forward and that DEFCAD should be allowed to re-publish its 10 firearm CAD files.

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A new Mac mini and a Retina MacBook Air are imminent, report says

15 hours 43 min ago

Enlarge / The 2014 Mac mini is pictured here. This redesign was seen by some users as a downgrade compared to its predecessor, and Apple hasn't overhauled it since. (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Apple plans to release a new replacement for the MacBook Air (and possibly the current MacBook) with a Retina display later this year, according to a report in Bloomberg. More surprising: the report also claims an updated Mac mini is right around the corner.

The report comes from Bloomberg's Mark Gurman, who has built a reputation recently on breaking news of major Apple initiatives and products before they are announced. As always, his report cites "people familiar with" Apple's plans.

The new Mac mini would be geared more toward pro users than its predecessor, the report says, with more powerful specifications but steeper pricing. The previous Mac mini is something of a cult hit with independent software developers; this report suggests Apple will double down on that. That would move the Mac mini further away from one of its original purposes—cheap consumer home theater PC—likely because that product category has been replaced by devices like the Apple TV or various Roku dongles and boxes, among other things.

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Minigame integrated into EVE Online helps scientists understand cells

18 hours 16 min ago

Enlarge / Yes, those are real human cells inside a fictional galaxy.

Citizen science, which asks the public to help out science projects, has produced some spectacular successes. But finding a way to grab and maintain hold of the public's attention can be a challenge. That has led to a number of projects that turn the science challenge into a game, finding ways of making a "win" into scientific progress.

But scientists have also figured out ways of hijacking existing games, including using pre-existing fan bases that recruit players through in-game rewards. Now, there's a progress report on an effort to turn EVE Online players into cell biology experts. Thanks to some in-game rewards, more than 300,000 players contributed roughly 33 million calls on where in a cell a protein was located. This not only greatly expanded a public database of information on proteins, but it enabled the researchers to better train a neural network to do the same thing.

Call it

While in many cases it has been possible to determine or infer what a protein does, that only gives us a partial idea of its actual function. That's because many proteins are shipped to specific locations in cells. So while two proteins may look similar in terms of the order and identity of their amino acids, one may be shipped to the nucleus, where it interacts with DNA, while its relative gets sent to the cell's surface, where it acts on proteins in the surroundings. So figuring out where a protein normally resides within cells can go a long way toward helping us figure out its normal functions.

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Huawei was caught using a pro camera to fake smartphone photos (again)

August 20, 2018 - 10:21pm

Enlarge / A photo taken with a DSLR is used to demonstrate the smartphone's AI beauty feature. (credit: Huawei)

Huawei might make decent smartphones, but its marketing and advertising campaigns have, multiple times, been struck by controversy. That continues today, as an actor's social media post revealed that the company faked smartphone photos with a professional DSLR camera for an advertisement in Egypt.

In the ad (embedded below), a couple takes selfies at a party and at home with the Huawei Nova 3. The Huawei video shows a rapid succession of moments in which the couple prepares to take the selfie, then shows the final photos as snapshots between moments. As it turns out, though, the photos were taken on a DSLR camera—the type of dedicated (and not-at-all-tied-to-a-smartphone) camera used by professional photographers.

Huawei Mobile Egypt's ad for the Huawei Nova 3.

Reddit user AbdullahSab3 discovered that Sarah Elshamy, one of the actors in the video, posted some behind-the-scenes photos to her Instagram page. One image revealed a photographer shooting the at-home selfie with a DSLR.

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Pay now or kiss Twitch Prime’s no-advertising perk goodbye starting Sept 14

August 20, 2018 - 10:08pm

Some of Twitch Turbo's icons, with its special smiley face flipped in light of today's Twitch Prime news. (credit: Twitch)

On Monday, Twitch announced a major downgrade coming soon to its paid Twitch Prime service. Starting September 14, any renewal of the paid service (as part of a paid Amazon Prime subscription) will have its no-advertising benefit lopped off.

On that day, existing paid Amazon Prime (and thus Twitch Prime) subscribers will continue receiving an ad-free viewing experience on the site, which revolves primarily around video game live-streaming. Any renewals paid for after that date, either on a monthly or annual basis, will flip the switch and turn video ads back on, to be played at random intervals during Twitch video streams.

In short: if you want to reap ad-free Twitch benefits via Amazon Prime for as long as possible and you like paying for Amazon's service, re-up that subscription ahead of September 14.

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Microsoft prepares to kill the Windows 8 store: No new apps from November

August 20, 2018 - 8:44pm

(credit: Microsoft)

Windows 8.1 dropped out of mainstream support earlier this year, entering the five-year extended support period in which it receives only security fixes. However, Microsoft is still accepting new application submissions to the Windows 8 Store. Submissions for new Windows Phone 8 apps are also currently accepted.

Today, Microsoft announced that this is soon coming to an end. After October 31, new applications will no longer be accepted for distribution through the store.

Updates to existing applications will continue to be supported. However, there's now an end date for these, too: from July 1, 2023, Microsoft will cease to distribute any updates for Windows 8.1 Store applications. The deadline for Windows Phone 8 is sooner: updates for those apps will end on July 1, 2019.

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Raytracing explained: Nvidia, Microsoft lead the way in revolutionizing gaming graphics

August 20, 2018 - 8:40pm

Enlarge / This image from EA’s SEED group shows off realistic shadows and reflections, and it highlights DXR. (credit: Project PICA PICA from SEED, Electronic Arts)

The announcement today (August 20) of Nvidia's new GPUs with integrated acceleration of raytracing makes Microsoft's plans for DirectX even more relevant. Raytracing gives developers access to a wide range of effects that the current mainstream approach (rasterization) handles poorly. Shadows, reflections, and glass are all set to look much more realistic. To outline the benefits, we're resurfacing this raytracing explainer that originally ran in March 2018.

At GDC, Microsoft announced a new feature for DirectX 12: DirectX Raytracing (DXR). The new API offers hardware-accelerated raytracing to DirectX applications, ushering in a new era of games with more realistic lighting, shadows, and materials. One day, this technology could enable the kinds of photorealistic imagery that we've become accustomed to in Hollywood blockbusters.

Whatever GPU you have, whether it be Nvidia's monstrous $3,000 Titan V or the little integrated thing in your $35 Raspberry Pi, the basic principles are the same; indeed, while many aspects of GPUs have changed since 3D accelerators first emerged in the 1990s, they've all been based on a common principle: rasterization.

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Finally, the biggest airplane in the world has some rockets to launch

August 20, 2018 - 7:16pm

Enlarge / Meet the Stratolaunch fleet. (credit: Stratolaunch)

For the last year or so, Stratolaunch has conducted a number of ground-based tests on the world's largest aircraft, both inside its gargantuan hangar and on a runway in Mojave, California. If all goes well, the company plans for the aircraft with a 117-meter wingspan to make its maiden flight by the end of this year.

But the aircraft is only a means to an end—sustainably launching rockets into space. Although Stratolaunch appears to have built a fine airplane, questions have lingered for years regarding exactly which rockets will be flown to a cruising altitude to then be released by the airplane. And when you've built an aircraft the likes of which has never been seen before, such curiosity is understandable.

On Monday, the company finally provided some additional clarity. Previously, Stratolaunch announced an agreement to launch small Pegasus rockets from the aircraft, but these boosters can only deliver up to 370kg into low-Earth orbit. (And they are so small, their use could not possibly justify the scale of the Stratolaunch plane, with a wingspan 20 meters greater than even the Spruce Goose).

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Man sues over Google’s “Location History” fiasco, case could affect millions

August 20, 2018 - 6:55pm

Enlarge (credit: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Google is facing new scrutiny in the wake of revelations that it stores users’ location data even when "Location History" is turned off.

Last Friday, Google quietly edited its description of the practice on its own website—while continuing said practice—to clarify that "some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps."

As a result of the previously unknown practice, which was first exposed by the Associated Press last week, Google has now been sued by a man in San Diego. Simultaneously, activists in Washington, DC are urging the Federal Trade Commission to examine whether the company is in breach of its 2011 consent decree with the agency.

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DirecTV beats $4B lawsuit that alleged it tricked customers into paying more

August 20, 2018 - 5:54pm

(credit: Aurich Lawson)

AT&T-owned DirecTV has defeated the bulk of a $4 billion lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission, which wasn't able to convince a judge that DirecTV ads deceived customers about the price of service.

The FTC sued DirecTV in March 2015, alleging that the nation's largest satellite TV provider used deceptive advertising to get consumers to agree to price increases of up to $45 per month and early cancellation fees of up to $480. The FTC was seeking refunds for affected consumers.

But a judge's ruling on Thursday gutted the FTC's case against DirecTV, which has been an AT&T subsidiary since July 2015. "The FTC's ambition in attempting to show that over 40,000 advertisements were likely to deceive substantially exceeded the strength of its evidence," wrote Judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr. of US District Court for the Northern District of California. "This case did not involve the type of strong proof the Court would expect to see in a case seeking nearly $4 billion in restitution, based on a claim that all of DirecTV's 33 million customers between 2007 and 2015 were necessarily deceived."

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Nvidia’s new RTX 2080, 2080 Ti video cards ship on Sept. 20, starting at $699

August 20, 2018 - 5:33pm

Enlarge / Say "hello!" to yet another GeForce graphics card. (credit: Nvidia)

Ahead of Nvidia's pre-Gamescom keynote on Monday, Internet retailers spilled the beans on the existence of the company's next consumer-grade graphics cards: the RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti.

Nearly an hour later, Nvidia unveiled its own product listings for "Founders" editions of the "20-series" video cards. The company confirmed a September 20 launch for those two models and a "coming later" notice for an additional RTX 2070. The prices for the Founders Editions are as follows: $599 for the RTX 2070; $799 for the RTX 2080, and $1,199 for the RTX 2080 Ti. Pre-orders are live at the above Nvidia link.

Nvidia's event concluded by advertising prices "starting" at $499, $699, and $999, respectively, for those same models—presumably referring to video card partners producing their own models outside Nvidia's own Founders Edition line.

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We can learn the secrets of smooth traffic flow by watching fire ants

August 20, 2018 - 4:25pm

Enlarge / Georgia Tech researchers color-coded fire ants with markers to better monitor their movements. (credit: Rob Felt/Georgia Tech)

The next time you're stuck in traffic, consider taking a cue from the lowly ant. Fire ants may hold the secret to regulating traffic flow, whether it be dealing with cars packed on a freeway during rush hour, shepherding crowds through narrow passageways, or coordinating swarms of robots.

"Ants that live in complex subterranean environments have to develop sophisticated social rules to avoid the bad things that can happen when you have a lot of individuals in a crowded environment," said Georgia Tech physicist Daniel Goldman, who has been studying fire ants for years and is co-author of a new paper in Science detailing how they optimize their tunnel-digging efforts.

In a jam

Physicists have long been fascinated by traffic jams, especially so-called "phantom" traffic jams (aka, "jamitons"), where there doesn't seem to be any good reason for the slowdown. It all comes down to density and the physics of self-organization. Traffic moving freely "flows" like a liquid. Traffic jammed to a standstill is akin to a solid.

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